Like most dads, I want my kids to grow up knowing life's important stuff. How to pound a nail, how to shoot a hook shot and how to tell a good story.
Stories keep family myths alive, especially those dealing with successfully completed home repairs and made hook shots. So a few weeks ago I took my 12-year-old son down to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to listen to Garrison Keillor. Keillor is an author, host of a two-hour live radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion" -- heard Saturday nights on more than 265 public radio stations -- and a terrific teller of tales.
He sang, danced and clucked like a chicken. "A first for the Meyerhoff," he noted. But mostly he told stories. Intricate, poignant, funny stories. Most were versions of the stories found in his new book, "The Book of Guys," (Viking, $22). Keillor, 51, who has a deep voice and an excellent sense of timing, came off as an entertaining fella, not as a writer reciting his works.
I knew I would enjoy the evening, but I wasn't sure about the kid. It is risky taking your kids to see something you think they "should experience." If kids don't appreciate the wonderful event they are being exposed to, they can make the evening pretty miserable for their parents. Parents caught in this situation have been known to shake their offspring and issue commands like, "Sit up! Be quiet! And enjoy this!"
Moreover, I had sprung for two good seats, at $35 a pop. What price seats you buy when you are introducing your kid to culture is a dicey proposition. If you buy the cheap seats and the kid goes ballistic half-way through the show, you end up feeling like a fool, but a cheap fool.
On the other hand, the closer the kid is to the stage, the more likely it is the kid will at least tolerate the show. A trip to the Meyerhoff a few years ago to see "A Christmas Carol" taught me that the younger the kid, the more compelling the need to buy better seats. On that family outing we sat at the back of the house, and the younger kid, who was then about 6, bailed out at intermission.
For the Keillor show, I took two seats that overlooked the stage. There the 12-year-old and I sat, looking down on the glowing bald head of the piano player, who periodically provided mood music, and on the great black mane of Keillor, who sat on a stool telling stories.
He told one about Lonesome Shorty, a cowboy who had trouble making commitments to cows and to his girlfriend, but who enjoyed collecting pale blue Amaryllis china. I howled with laughter, especially when Keillor told how Shorty's sidekick, Gene, had been bitten by a horse and had babbled incoherently for days, "mostly about supply-side economics."
Keillor also talked about the difference between the way girls and boys are brought up. Girls, he said, are allowed to play inside the home, where they learn about intricate social order. Boys, who break things and make noise, are sent outdoors, "like livestock."
The day after the show, in a phone interview, Keillor went over some of the basics of storytelling. In your early storytelling days, it helps to have someone to model yourself after, he said. Keillor said he was introduced to storytelling as a kid, at family gatherings in Anoka, Minn. There, an elder cousin would tell tales, that, as Keillor said, "bound up the lives of the family." The elder got to tell the stories, Keillor said, because he knew the most characters.
Keillor said he benefited from growing up in the Midwest where a conversation usually includes a story. But in New York, Keillor said, referring to the town he now spends quite a bit of time in, "conversations consist of opinions. Somebody tosses out a topic and people try to top each other with opinions about that book, or that writer."
A good story, he said, is not just a guy talking. The characters "have to have some vitality apart from the narrator." Finally, I asked Keillor what parents could give kids to encourage the youngsters to tell stories. He answered in a flash: "An audience."
I was uncertain what effect, if any, the evening out had on the 12-year-old. After the show, he reported the event was "OK," a description I took to mean "not as bad as I thought it was going to be."
But a few days later he and his younger brother were wrestling and I ordered them out of the house. "Get outside," I hollered.
The kid turned to me and quoted from his new-found wisdom. "Outside?" he said, "like livestock?"